Tensions between the campaigns of St. Johns County sheriff’s candidates Robert Hardwick and longtime sheriff’s deputy Chris Strickland were on full display during a July 15 debate.

Outgoing Sheriff David Shoar was involved in a verbal altercation with Strickland supporters during the event, and Strickland stormed out of the St. Augustine Shriner’s Club midway through.

But days before that dust-up occurred, friction between Strickland and Hardwick’s camps was already brewing behind the scenes of another debate.

The Ponte Vedra and Nocatee Republican clubs co-hosted a candidate forum last week at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. It was originally billed as a face-off between Strickland and Hardwick, who will battle in the Republican primary Aug. 18.

But Strickland did not show up for the July 23 event, prompting organizers to make an eleventh-hour format change, switching the event to a town hall forum for GOP candidates in the sheriff, county commission and local U.S. House of Representatives races.

Strickland released a July 23 statement on Facebook, saying his campaign team never committed to appear because they couldn’t come to terms with organizers on the moderator for the debate. He also questioned the Hardwick campaign’s sway over the event and said he would have gladly attended if he was “guaranteed a level playing field.”

St. Johns County Republican Club chairman Brandon Patty responded to Strickland in a statement of his own the same day, taking “strong issue with his claim that the debate would have been unfair or an unlevel playing field.” Patty demanded an apology and called for Strickland to retract his allegations.

“The Republican Party, and our chartered clubs, are neutral and treat each candidate the same, respectfully and fairly, in contested Republican primaries,” Patty wrote.

Emails obtained by The Record between show how negotiations between event organizers and Hardwick and Strickland’s respective campaign advisers broke down because the two camps couldn’t agree to terms for a second debate moderator.

What the e-mails say

The winner of next month’s primary faces write-in candidate Scott Boutwell in the Nov. 3 general election for the right to take the reins from Shoar, who is stepping down after 16 years as St. Johns County’s top lawman.

Lauren Blocker, secretary of the Ponte Vedra Republican Club, initiated the communications in late June. She had separate phone conversations with Peret Pass and Tom Verri – the respective campaign advisors for Hardwick and Strickland. During her initial telephone discussions, Blocker offered both candidates the option of reviewing the questions before the debate. She also discussed with Verri the idea of a second moderator.

Following those preliminary talks, a string of group emails began June 26 that included Blocker, Pass, Verri and Nocatee Republican Club vice president Angelica Gross.

Blocker reached out to the respective campaigns to confirm July 23 as the date for the debate. She told Pass and Verri that Meagan Perkins, who serves on the county’s Planning & Zoning Agency, had agreed to moderate the event.

Perkins was offered as a neutral moderator. Neither Verri nor Pass had issues with her hosting the debate.

Blocker, who is the wife of St. Johns County Commissioner Jerremiah Blocker, donated $1,000 to Hardwick’s campaign on the day he filed in September 2019, election records indicate. She said she told Verri she was a personal supporter of Hardwick during their initial conversation for transparency’s sake. Gross said that was a reason she took the lead on negotiations later during the process.

But the first signs of trouble came July 7 when Gross emailed both campaigns about a promotional flyer for the debate. There were few qualms with the flyer, but Verri responded saying he wanted Catie Marks Griggs, a local property manager and marketing exec, to be the second moderator for Strickland’s team. Pass replied to Verri’s email, saying Hardwick’s campaign team did “not approve of the addition of one of Mr. Strickland’s largest supporters as a moderator.”

Gross, in a subsequent email, said she and Blocker had already discussed it and felt a second moderator was no longer needed because candidates were being given the debate questions ahead of time.

Pass said Tuesday event organizers had never discussed the idea of a second moderator with her. Gross and Blocker said that idea was never set in stone, indicating it was an idea Verri suggested during his initial conversation with Blocker.

Blocker said she would discuss it with the Nocatee club. But Gross said that was during the very preliminary planning stages and organizers later decided against it. Both she and Blocker said they never committed to that term.

“We only had one podium at the venue,” Gross explained Tuesday. “I also didn’t want any intimidation factor from either candidate because I knew that things were already heated. So I said, ‘No, let’s just provide a fair, unbiased moderator who hasn’t either publicly endorsed anyone or financially contributed to either campaign.’”

Verri, however, said Tuesday he was always under the impression there would be multiple moderators based on his first conversation with Blocker. In a July 8 email, he reiterated his demand for a second moderator, while taking a jab at Pass for shooting down the idea.

“If we’re going to start pointing fingers at who is a supporter we might as well go down the campaign donation list,” he wrote. “I’m not gonna sit here and go back-and-forth naming names. We all know who gave to whom. I think we can have a fair and balanced debate. We will go with two moderators. That to me is the fairest way.”

Pass responded to Verri’s email hours later, pointing at Strickland’s absence from several debate forums.

“If your campaign had held on your previous commitments to appear, you would have seen that each opportunity has not only been a fair setting, but more importantly an opportunity to engage with citizens of this great county,” she wrote. “Thank you also for pointing out our vast list of support. We are incredibly humbled by the support we have received thus far and continue to receive daily.”

Gross sought to diffuse the brewing tension and salvage the debate. She interjected urging Verri and Pass to focus on finding agreeable terms.

“We need to find a solution to this miniscule problem and if we can’t, the optics will be detrimental to Republican candidates and WILL be used against us,” she wrote in a July 8 email. “So lets step up and offer solutions.”

Blocker said Verri called her after the July 8 exchange and floated local attorney Erika Alba as a possible moderator. He later called her back after discussing the issue with Strickland’s campaign team and said the moderator had to be Marks Griggs or they would cancel, Blocker said.

The negotiations reached an impasse at that point.

“To confirm, Mr. Strickland is not willing to attend the debate unless Catie Griggs is a moderator,” Blocker wrote in a July 8 group email. “The Hardwick campaign does not agree to this selection.

“Both clubs are willing to consider a mutually agreeable moderator if either campaign changes their minds.”

Following the highly publicized turmoil involving outgoing sheriff David Shoar at the July 15 debate event, Strickland publicly stated he would not be participating in any more debates. He accussed Shoar, who is endorsing Hardwick, of “weaponizing the Sheriff’s Office” and claimed it was a safety hazard to attend any more such events, fearing it would be a repeat of that fracas.

But Gross said he never formally canceled his appearance at their event. Organizers for the two Republican clubs pledged to still hold the event for their 650 members.

“I am hearing through many sources that you are under the impression Chris Strickland will be at this event coming up,” Verri wrote in a private email to Gross on July 17. “I’m not sure what was ambiguous about our last email where we mentioned we would not be attending. But I wanted to reach out to you and let you know Chris Strickland will not be attending this event. I thought you knew that after we were unable to come to an agreement on the moderators. This is not Chris backing out to be clear. While we agreed-upon this in the first place, nothing was ever finalized because we could not iron out the final terms regarding the moderation.”

Gross reached out to Verri on July 20. She extended an olive branch, offering to change the moderator to Patty, the St. Johns County Republican Party chair.

“Canceling is NOT an option and they will hold us accountable,” she wrote. “All of our reputations are on the line.”

Verri responded to her the following day, reiterating that he already made Strickland’s intentions clear.

“I’m trying to understand why there’s still a misunderstanding about our participation in this event,” he wrote. “Two weeks ago I informed you we would not be attending after our moderator was rejected. Once again, initially my understanding was there would be two moderators and we would be able to submit one. We did so and and requested Catie Marks (Griggs). Peret Pass then rejected Ms. Marks (Griggs). At that point I believe I indicated that we would not be participating. That’s still stands and that is our position.”

Gross replied saying Verri was sending her mixed messages and chiding him for making no attempts to compromise.

“In the same paragraph you’re saying that you aren’t attending but that you aren’t backing out,” Gross told Verri. “This is contradictory so how am I supposed to decipher that? I do not consider that a formal cancellation to a confirmed event.”

Gross again offered to replace Perkins, who was still the slated moderator, with any substitute both camps could agree on.

“You’re essentially saying that it’s your way or nothing,” she wrote. “That is in no way attempting to come to an agreement; especially since I’ve repeatedly asked you for objections and you haven’t responded with ANY.”

Verri doubled down on his demand for Marks Griggs, while quibbling over whether it was a cancellation by Strickland.

“Somewhere along the line , someone arbitrarily decided two (moderators) were not necessary,” he wrote July 21. “Please don’t mince words. We never agreed to attend because the details were never worked out. That is not the same as backing out or not showing up. On behalf of the campaign, there will be no further comment on this.”

On the eve of the debate, Gross acquiesced Verri’s demand, telling him he could bring any moderator Strickland wanted as a last ditch effort to salvage to debate.

Verri rejected the offer. Gross said he finally gave a formal cancellation over the phone the morning of the debate.

Organizers quickly transitioned, reformatting the event hours before the start and switching it to a town hall forum for the invited candidates.

Organizers said at least 150 people attended. Public Defender hopefuls George Burden, Anne Marie Gennusa and Matt Metz engaged in a mini debate, as did County commission candidates Christian Whitehurst and Jimmy Johns. Candidates in several other races introduced themselves to the crowd. Hardwick answered questions for about 45 minutes, organizers said.

Pass said she organizers never discussed a second moderator with her. She only learned of it Verri made mention in his emails. She said Hardwick’s campaign laid out no terms for the debate. Pass said they simply agreed to date and committed to attend the debate.

“We didn’t even ask for the questions ahead of time,” she said. “We didn’t really care. We just wanted to be there and answer the questions like we’ve been at the other five debates.”

Strickland’s No-Shows

Last week’s Ponte Vedra event was not the first political forum Strickland has backed out of.

His campaign has been tempered with suspicions of favoritism for his opponent.

Hardwick and Strickland faced off at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge on July 8, an event to which only local law enforcement officers were invited. That was the only debate Strickland has fully participated in.

Strickland had failed to appear at four others and left the Shriner’s Club event after answering only two questions.

A June 16 event at the American Legion in West Augustine was canceled after Strickland notified event organizers days ahead that he would not be attending. Verri said the event originally was presented as a candidates meet-and-greet but soon morphed into a debate. His campaign also released a statement objecting to write-in candidate Scott Boutwell’s last-minute filing, which essentially locked registered Democrats out of voting in the race’s Republican primary.

On June 18, Strickland was a no-show for a scheduled appearance on Uncommon Ground, a weekday podcast hosted by Troy Blevins and Mike Davis. Blevins and fellow host Pete Melfi wound up having an hourlong conversation just with Hardwick.

Verri said Tuesday “they’re clearly biased to Robbie” and said they didn’t trust the process.

Blevins and Melfi briefly addressed that cancellation on Melfi’s 904 Now show Monday.

“It can’t just always be unfair,” Blevins said. “Not everybody’s like that. I guess the entire world’s against him”

“You can’t go into an office like that and just immediately think everybody’s always out to get you,” Melfi added.

“That story’s not holding water anymore,” Blevins said.

Strickland’s team also canceled an appearance at a July 9 debate on WSOS 103.9. Verri described station owner and morning show host Kevin Geddings, who was moderating that debate, as a “pro-Robbie guy” and suggested it was tilted in Hardwick’s favor.

“We weren’t going to participate in that kind of nonsense,” he said.

Verri addressed Strickland’s no-shows during a phone interview with The Record. He explained the camp’s leeriness, describing some of the debate events as “walking into enemy territory.

“When you see all these clubs and all these people claiming that they want to have a fair this and a fair that, it’s nonsense because they have all been in Hardwick’s camp since day one,” he said. “The leadership in all these clubs – whether it’s Brandon Patty or Lauren Blocker and her husband Jeremiah – they’ve all been behind Robbie since day one. And now they’re going to try and say, ‘Oh, Chris didn’t want to come because he thought it was going to be unfair.’ It was going to be biased from the beginning.”

The Back and Forth

Patty, who chairs the Republican Executive Committee, said Strickland’s statement insinuated the debates hosted by various GOP clubs in the county are biased, a violation of those clubs’ charters.

“I would have liked to have a challenging and compelling debate in which REAL questions are asked of the candidates in a fair and balanced way,” Strickland’s statement read. “This was our request, and it was denied.”

Patty said Tuesday that allegation of bias was what compelled him to write a rebuttal.

“There’s this common thread of them attacking and saying it’s going to be unfair, it’s going to be this, going to be that,” Patty said. “We pride ourselves on neutrality because we want to be — and we are — impartial as a club and organization. For them to come out and attack multiple Republican clubs is beyond the pale. It’s still one of those where it blows me away because these are your voters.”

Patty went on to say he sought to set the record straight with his statement. He called for an apology from Strickland’s team.

“This is not acceptable,” he said. “These clubs were doing whatever they could to have a fair and impartial debate. They were willing to bend over backwards in order to make sure that both candidates were comfortable going into the debate.”

Verri said he wrote statement and Strickland approved it. He claimed he never accused anyone of being biased.

“If you look at our statement, we did not say that they were at fault,” he said. “We did not allege that they were going to put on an unfair debate. All we said was that when we do these things, we want to have a level playing field.”

Gross accused him of being disingenuous and using “word salad” by making unclear statements throughout the process.

“I’ve never hosted a debate that it was this difficult to get a straight answer, an objection to a moderator,” she said. “Peret (Pass) had absolutely nothing to do with it.

“It was mine and Lauren’s event. We would never give Peret authority to choose a moderator and not give it to the other candidate. And to imply that and spread that all over social media is extremely insulting to us, who were just trying to do the right thing and provide a fair platform.”